The O.B. Curtis Water Plant in Jackson. Credit: Alex Rozier/Mississippi Today

On the same day, in uncoordinated events, Jackson restaurateurs and public school teachers sent out the same message to local and state political leaders – fix the ongoing water issues in the state’s capital city that have led to boil water notices.

The Mississippi Association of Educators said the water crisis impacts the ability of students in the city of Jackson to learn.

“When the water system fails, JPS schools are forced to transition to online learning, destabilizing students’ learning environments and putting more economic strain on families who now must choose between taking off work or hiring childcare if that is an option,” a MAE position paper released Monday said. “Moreover, with the unplanned transition to online learning, access to free and reduced breakfast and lunch becomes an additional challenge for students.”

MAE said it “interfaced” with Jackson residents at various locations and through a phone survey and found more than 90% of residents had experienced tap water issues at both home and school. All said they spent funds to purchase bottled water.

MAE urged Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba “to issue a proclamation declaring that fixing the ongoing water crisis and securing safe and reliable water access in Jackson will be made the first priority of the administration.” The local government should develop a plan, detailing cost, to address the problem.

MAE also called for the Legislature and state leaders to devote substantial funds from the $1.8 billion in COVID-19 relief money received from the federal government to address the water crisis.

MAE said “The composition of the system is dangerous. Lead and galvanized and cast-iron pipes make up large portions of the city’s infrastructure. These aging pipes composed of dangerous and degraded materials will continue to block Jackson’s development efforts if they remain unaddressed.”

Also on Monday, about 45 restaurant owners and managers sent a letter to Gov. Tate Reeves, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, Speaker Philip Gunn, Lumumba, Jackson City Council members and members of the Hinds County Board of Supervisors saying the constant boil water notices and at times interruptions in water supply were unsustainable. They asked the political leaders to put aside any differences and work together. Thus far, state and local leaders have not been able reach an accord on the water woes of the state’s largest and capital city.

During a news conference at the Iron Horse Grill, a local restaurant, about 20 restaurateurs raised their hands when asked if they had been contacted about moving out of Jackson to the suburbs.

The speakers said some of the restaurants are having to spend between $500 and $700 daily on ice, bottled water and other items, such as canned or bottled soft drinks to replace the fountain soda that is unavailable without pressurized water.

This is having to be done, said Pat Fontaine, executive director of the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association, despite very narrow profit margins caused in part by the current level of inflation and labor and supply shortages.

The letter was described “as the first formal attempt to force attention on this crisis.”

The Legislature approved what is expected to be $25 million of the $1.8 billion in federal funds the state received to match $25 million the city of Jackson received in federal funds to deal with water and sewer issues. But those funds have been described as a small fraction of the money needed to deal with an aged water and sewer system. It has been estimated it will cost more than $1 billion to fix the antiquated and worn-out infrastructure system.

In addition, Jackson Mayor Lumumba has said the ongoing boil water notices are being caused by other issues – such as  the lack of qualified staff to operate the complex Jackson surface water system.

“As a matter of fairness and practicality, if no solution is imminent, if this is to be the status quo, can restaurant owners expect to be compensated for their additional cost of operation and lost revenue?” the letter asked. They asked if they could get a discount on their City of Jackson water bill or an income tax credit from the state.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.